Interview: Thomas Kellner - Reinterpreting Reality
Fine art photographer, Thomas Kellner, is a German artist and curator based in Siegen, and whose photographs can be found in a number of worldwide galleries representing his work. His unique vision creates photographic works that deconstruct and reinterpret architectural masterpieces, rebuilding them, frame by frame, into animated and often whimsical works of art. Inspired by Cubism, Kellner’s photographs provide alternative views of many of the world’s most iconic destinations. His aesthetic has awarded him a wide-ranging perspective that quite often mimics his photographic ideas from the worlds of sculpture, film, and painting.
With a multi-faceted educational background in the arts, Thomas settled upon photography as his chief endeavor, though never far from his interest in painting. Traveling the globe and photographing historical and recognizable sites, Kellner utilizes analog cameras and roll after roll of film to create strips of frames arranged into sometimes massive contact sheets, realizing his singular vision. Creating a dizzying array of 35mm frames arranged in a way that makes our very own brains fill the gaps and piece together these exploded puzzles in order to make sense of what we are looking at, Thomas forces us to look again at what we had once originally deemed as just another tourist destination. We are forced to see these architectural and environmental achievements that Thomas has painstakingly restructured and reinterpreted for us anew. Creating something in the world of fine art and architecture that is unique, he quite figuratively gives life to the inanimate.
In addition to Kellner’s photographic contributions, he has spent year after year, curating exhibitions of artistic works in locations from his own studio, to festivals in China and Germany. A consummate supporter of the arts, he relinquishes much of his time to teaching classes and workshops to eager students and photographic professionals alike. Thomas has written for magazines, lectured at universities, and been a juror and reviewer of portfolios for FotoFest in the U.S., Fotofestiwal in Poland, FotoBild in Germany, artphotofest in Romania, and Foto Arte Brasilia in Brazil, among others. As a key component to his artistic process, Kellner believes that these contributions are yet another part of the introduction of fine art and creativity to his community.
It is with honor and grace that Thomas Kellner has allowed us this look into his works and his unique process of creating his outstanding, and occasionally mammoth prints. With Thomas about to embark on another round of international travel in his pursuit of engaging and beautiful photographic works, it is quite fortunate that we were able to secure this informative interview for the readers of Analog Forever Magazine before his journeys commence. Upon his upcoming departure, we wish Thomas safe travels in his endeavors, and look forward to what he brings back from the field. Many thanks, dear friend.
Michael Kirchoff: Thank you for taking the time to help us explore your works and learn about your process, Thomas. While you have developed an extraordinary visual voice in photography, I would imagine your start had much more of a humble beginning. Could you tell us a little of your early days in photography and what drew you to it as your art form of choice?
Thomas Kellner: I was raised mostly by my mother who was an art teacher. My father had little influence on my evolution as an artist, although he was a heavy amateur photographer. In his professional life he was also a teacher, but for music and biology at a blind’s pupils’ school. I got my first camera in the age of four, but as children do, draw and paint all day. Maybe it was a way to overcome the divorce of my parents, but I remember that from a very early age, I wanted to build my life around Fine Art. I applied for graphic design, but my father persuaded me to go for studies to become a fine arts teacher. Well, after half a year I knew the university where I went was perfect, but definitely not for me becoming a teacher. So, I started very early exhibiting my works, still believing that I would become a painter. But, as things often are, I first understood the artistic process itself within photography and felt in love with pinhole photography, and all alternative processes that are so in fashion today. Well, this was almost 30 years ago now, and I have a big smile at all the cyanotypes, platinum prints, etc., I see now.
MK: Is there anything from your past that you feel has had a dramatic influence on how you create images today?
TK: I believe the biggest influence came from art history classes and conceptional abstract thinking. What is an image - what is a picture? Which picture has the right to be placed on a wall (when it’s not for decoration only)? The Bechers and their students were high on demand, but I could not understand their works at all. Still, today I have major doubts. Not about the Bechers and their creation of a new term of typology in Fine Arts, but more about the function of documentary photography becoming fine art. I was taught that the task that an artist has to solve, is to give something new to this world. Pure documentary does just replicate what is already there. Classes in the history of medieval painting, about sculptures and cubism, lead to the question of time and multiple perspective in an image, neglecting the renaissance old concept of a central perspective.
MK: What is it about your artistic practice that you feel is represented most significantly in your photographs?
TK: My photographs serve different layers of meanings. One is to break architecture into pieces - to break something that we know as very stable. Second, is to confront our own idealistic image with my works that shows us that we cannot capture the world like we visualize it. Of course, I am using film, not Photoshop, which means that I am not doing a collage. I am following a concept - a story board. I use film, because the 35mm film has built the basis for the history of our technical image today.
MK: Once you have maintained a successful career as a photographer, is there ever any pressure to outdo yourself or continue to prove yourself?
TK: Well, you always have naysayers and people who envy you. There are basically two different concepts of being an artist: The one that continuously invents himself anew, or the other one who follows one idea. The city where I live in, Siegen, has dedicated an award to living European painters every 5 years, among them painters like Morandi, Bacon, Geiger, Freud and Toroni. Those always give me the energy and the trust that it is worthy to artistically explore a small corner of visual and intellectual interest. The more knowledge I find in that niche, the richer my work becomes.
MK: Do you collaborate with likeminded individuals on projects, or do you find it more productive to handle everything yourself? Are there any collaborations in the past that have been particularly beneficial?
TK: I am mostly working alone, but I am always networking with fellow photographers that I have met in person on my curatorial projects and exhibitions. I enjoy meeting my friends and colleagues and find criticism very productive.
What I enjoy, is bringing my studio up to a different level, where I can employ others or have multiple interns to assist me in projects, administration, production and creation. Most beneficial have been residencies and commissions that challenged me - like at The Boston Athenaeum turning my interest towards interiors, in Brasilia photographing the naked architecture of concrete by Oscar Niemeyer, or getting involved in local, but Russian, cultural history with Georg Wilhelm Henning. The most painful for my muscles was working two days in the studio, always half on my knees, doing a fashion shoot in my style. Every challenge has led to specific new knowledge for my work within the grid of my contact sheet, most recently turning buildings into waves and partially leaving the contact sheet into other forms of Fine Art.
MK: Was there a specific point in time where you felt that you had found your voice in photography and became satisfied with the direction of your work? Do you ever truly find yourself in a good place with your images, or are you always searching for more?
TK: The first time that happened was during my studies at university, when I originally wanted to become a painter. In photography it happened to me the first time I discovered perpetuum mobile, the endless energy to keep working on something in one medium. Later, when I had started the contact sheets, I needed two years to understand that I had found something really beautiful, which allowed me to create a series of work with the monuments, followed by the interiors and the Brazil work. With genius loci, a new era started where I understood that I have a responsibility to keep exploring the visual possibilities of that niche within the contact sheet. The difficulty today is that the exploration is rather expensive, and I am dependent on projects and funding. However, there are several series that I am still working on, and I am always busy with different pieces of Fine Art.
MK: Your photographs have been the source of inspiration for so many, but what is it that inspires you?
TK: Thank you! I get emails from students from many countries and happily answer all questions. I find more and more works of other artists that are in a relation to my own work and I also find followers that have been inspired by my work. I think my own inspiration still comes from my art history classes, mainly influenced by cubism.
MK: The technical and logistical difficulties required to make each of your photographs are many. How long did it take you to develop the deconstructed and Cubist direction of your photographs? Were there any especially difficult hurdles you needed to overcome during this process?
TK: The beginning was a visual struggle, not knowing how those fine and fat lines of the contact sheet would influence the depiction of the object. For some time, the work was driven by the subjects, like the monuments or a city like Brasilia, which soon will celebrate its 60th birthday. I am still curious of the impact that my visual contribution has to the visual history of that city in such an early history of that city.
Difficulties or challenges were always technical ones. The bigger the pictures become, the more material and time you need. Weather is always an issue, and just lately, with shooting fashion in the studio, I had to control not only the horizontal line but also the vertical.
MK: While out in the field working on each image, have specific plans already been made to map out each photograph, or is there often a more organic approach taken? Do you ever look back and find that nothing you had planned is what was done, yet you feel completely satisfied with the outcome?
TK: Usually, I have an idea of the object that I am going to photograph, but you cannot pre-visualize my images with so many details and so much movement. It is comparable to the sketch or the stroke of the brush, that you cannot precisely describe beforehand. There are always pictures that you like more than others, and time will also change your relation to single works. And of course, it is like this with all photographs or paintings - there are only a few stars in an artist’s lifetime, but many highlights.
MK: Clearly, in order to make each of your photographs onto film, specific films and equipment are required. From a technical and equipment related standpoint, what do you prefer to use in order to accomplish your goal with each image?
TK: I have almost always worked with a Pentax Camera. Currently it is a Pentax MZS, with three different zoom lenses and up to 3 converters. I am working with 35mm Kodak negative films, and choose the cheapest that I can find. I need to find a lighter tripod soon, as luggage becomes an issue. I do hope that I can finish one or the other series’ and reduce my travels a bit.
MK: In singling out a specific image of yours, one cannot help but wonder about The Grand Canyon photograph. Did creating that piece require more advanced methods in planning and execution? How many frames are actually used to complete it, and what is the final print size? Is there a story to go along with making this particularly impressive construction?
TK: It’s interesting that you pick this one. 2006 was one of my most prolific years, and one that I had a lot of courage for bigger steps. I had many projects - first time in Latin America and Mexico, first time to the Islamic world of Syria, and first time to Asia and China. That was the period that I started focusing on iconic world architecture, like the Golden Gate Bridge or the Great Wall of China, which was done with up to 20 rolls and 720 frames. For the Great Wall I had something in mind, which I realized was impossible to create, or to find. Shooting the Great Wall was also a mixture of landscape and architecture. You start early morning in Beijing, hoping the weather would be fine. 2006 was still the time of massive air pollution, when days almost as pitch dark like nights, just because of the pollution. Arriving at the Great Wall you have to climb up, move quickly and find a position for shooting. After two hours I found this perspective with a double or triple elliptical composition on a golden cut, where I decided to deconstruct only the center of the image and use the wall as the viewers entrance. The complete series of Tango Metropolis might still get one or the other addition, and is only starting to tour with shows since 2016, ten years after did most of the works. In 2006 to 2008 I was also working on the interiors and these images went on exhibition. The bank crises came and I lost the possibility to show all those big pieces ten years ago. The Brandenburg Gate was only once shown in an exhibition before 2016.
One important story that did not happen 2006 - I wanted to travel to the U.S. National Parks, including the Grand Canyon. It was planned to be my 40th birthday celebration at the Grand Canyon, and the first holiday together with my wife. Unfortunately, this did not happen because someone broke into my studio and stole all of my equipment, which was not insured. We had to cancel this trip and only managed to do half of it in 2014. The Grand Canyon image is important in many ways. First of all, it reflects my impression of David Hockney’s Grand Canyon, from his 1997 exhibition in Cologne, which I wanted to comment on. Secondly, it shows my experience photographing the landscape while not tilting my camera. The confusion in the landscape by little repetitions and unbalances is big enough to result in a similar experience for the viewer, but still gives the impression of this vast landscape. It took me four days to find this vantage point, and then shooting for four hours without knowing if I had enough time, or if I would be too fast. I shot the length using three rolls, with a total of sixty rows high, which means 2160 frames, totaling a length of 4.5 meters. My largest piece ever.
MK: Knowing that most of your works these days are in color, I’ve noticed that a return to showing your earlier black and white imagery has taken place. What made you decide to start showing this work now?
TK: In 2014, I decided to travel with my wife to the Grand Canyon, and one day she asked me if could print my works in black & white, as she had a high request for such works in her gallery. I replied that I would not print my color images in black & white, but could research in my archives for those that I did previously in B&W. The resulting exhibition of these works were a huge success, and gave me a full page in the leading German national newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, as well as many more shows, including a one at the Fox Talbot Museum in Lacock Abbey, the birthplace of photography.
MK: The black and white photographs done in your signature style are far simpler than more recent color works, but somehow have a specific life and quality all their own that I find particularly stunning. Seeing this earlier work now seems quite fresh and new even after all of the time that has gone by since their creation. What is it you feel that these images represent beyond your most recent photographs?
TK: Yes, color does not distract us from looking at the composition and Sujeet’s structure. At the same time, they are fresh because I had less experience. Also perhaps, maybe more courage for experimentation and using technically less zoom lenses, but fixed ones. Of course, in the smaller images you are closer to that aspect of breaking the architecture into pieces, closer to ideas of cubism, closer to ideas of deconstruction, and to the architecture of Frank O. Gehry.
Of course, it is a phenomenon that my wife saw the coming of this zeitgeist. Today we enjoy looking at analog black & white work, whereas back in the late nineties, color was much more in fashion. I don’t know yet if I will go back to black & white for one of my next projects. It depends very much on the possibilities that I find.
MK: In addition to your photographic practice, you spend a fair amount of time curating as well. How does your own work inform the direction you take in curating the work of others into cohesive exhibitions? Do you feel that being a photographer yourself, you have a unique viewpoint that others may not have?
TK: As an artist I am always full of ideas, not only for images or projects, but also creative in doing different steps - looking at other businesses, or even creating new structures within the perception of art in my local community. I am not just an artist. I studied art, art history, sociology, politics and economics with the intention of becoming a teacher. My parents were teachers, and I also love music, dance, and sports. Curating shows, collecting works, and writing for magazines has always been a method to interfere in the market with my own ideas and giving experimental approaches a stage, where documentary style is still in high fashion.
You meet people, you make friends in this art world, and sometimes, you need a vehicle to see each other without doing another solo show. Some Fine Art photographers run blogs, others publish magazines or books, and some work as curators. As a photographer with so many shows on all continents, I see works from different cultural and ethnic backgrounds, and get a wide knowledge that allows me to make suggestions for the perception of photography and single authors. I enjoy that work a lot, and I enjoy meeting my fellow photographers here and elsewhere in the world.
MK: You have a long and impressive career as a photographic artist that few seem to accomplish so eloquently. I wonder if you have any words of wisdom you’d like to impart on our readership about the qualities and efforts it takes to accomplish their goals in photography?
TK: Well, I am happy with my life and the small success. I know not all reach a solo show in New York, where I had two, and still hope I can reach another one. I know that publishing books and catalogs is a privilege, like also having several museums carry my work in their collections. I remember Martha Schneider saying, “Thomas you are doing good. You not only do fantastic work, but 50% is you who makes the success possible”. This means you need to be professional and polite all the time, plus you need the ability to stay in touch with many that you like, or feel that you will work with together one day.
MK: You seem to constantly be on the move with your work. I know that currently you are in the process of moving your studio, as well as planning to head out to new locations to immortalize. What do we hope to find from you once these latest endeavors are completed?
TK: I really wanted to extend my studio to a different level, but sorely, I am losing my beloved studio in a city run building after 20 years, and have to move to a smaller space in our own house. I have no idea whether my works will get smaller again, or if I will have to apply for residencies. I want to go back into painting, am working on more deconstructed portraits, and want to work more on the cubist ideas of a nude descending the stairs or the Mademoiselle d’Avignon. My recent series, Flucticulus, is not even on my website, but of course requires an answer from myself artistically. I am happy that this dwell of ideas seems not to end, and that I always find enough energy to keep working. I have plans and ideas for many different shows. This year has been complicated, when my mother was hit by a stroke and I had to be the caring son. While caring for my mother, I hope that I can share some more months or years at her side. It shows me how important my family is, sharing time with my wife and my friends.
Thank you, Michael, for these wonderfully precise questions that make me write in a different way. I hope we can meet one day. Goodbye for now, thank you so much, and thank you to each reader here for the time and attention.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Michael Kirchoff is an independent curator and juror for a number of organizations and galleries around the country, including Photolucida’s Critical Mass. In addition, he spent ten years (2006-2016) on the Board of the American Photographic Artists in Los Angeles (APA/LA), producing artist lectures, as well as business and inspirational events for the community. Currently, he is also Editor-in-Chief at Analog Forever Magazine, and has recently founded the online photographer interview website, Catalyst: Interviews. Previously, Michael spent over four years as Editor at BLUR Magazine. Connect with Michael Kirchoff on his Website and on Instagram!